Erdoğan’s Sochi deal plays into Assad’s hands

Much has made much of a deal struck between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in the Sochi this month over Syria’s northwestern Idlib province.

Turkey’s government-controlled press reacted to the news with near euphoria, reflecting relief that an anticipated Syrian government offensive against the rebel-held enclave had been forestalled. One columnist even suggested that Erdoğan, for whom good news has been scarce lately, be nominated for the Nobel peace prize. Elsewhere, many wondered if the deal had done more than buy Idlib, and Turkey, a temporary reprieve.

At present, Idlib is occupied by a fractious array of armed groups. Many have little in common besides their opposition to Syria’s government - partly explaining why they seem to spend as much time fighting each other as their common enemy.

Turkey already has troops on the ground in this chaotic environment. They are deployed there, under the terms of a 2017 agreement with Russian and Iran, to man a dozen or so outposts along Idlib’s border with neighbouring Syrian provinces, providing a barrier of sorts separating the rebels from Syrian government forces.

Under the terms of the Sochi deal, Turkey will be tasked with establishing a demilitarised buffer zone 15 to 25 km wide along Idlib’s internal border by the middle of October. Doing this requires the removal of heavy weapons from the zone, along with what Putin referred to as “radically-minded” rebels. In return, Russia will prevent the Syrian government from undertaking an offensive in the heavily populated region.

So far so good. Turkey has temporarily averted the possibility of a humanitarian catastrophe in Idlib, one that would likely have caused hundreds of thousands of refugees and rebels to flee towards the Turkish border.

Beyond this, it is hard to see how the deal serves anyone’s interests better than it does those of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

For several years now, Assad and his Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah allies have followed, largely successfully, a strategy that involves corralling their enemies into successively fewer and smaller enclaves.

It is easy to understand why they have done this. Although it concentrates their opponents’ strength in particular locations, this allows the overstretched and undermanned government forces to reclaim areas vacated by the rebels at low cost and at the same time concentrate their superior firepower on fewer, but more target rich, environments. The strategy plays to the Syrian government’s military strengths, whilst concealing its military weaknesses.

The deal struck in Sochi gives every appearance of furthering this strategy. It therefore comes as no surprise that the Syrian government reacted positively. Rebel forces will now, assuming Turkey is at least partially successful in fulfilling its side of the bargain, be concentrated into a smaller area within Idlib, making them an easier target if, or when, the Syrian government moves onto the offensive.

The deal is also so riddled ambiguities that Turkey will find it near impossible to uphold its terms. Turkey’s understanding of what constitute “radically-minded” rebels likely differs from that of Russia’s, never mind the Syrian government’s view. Unless Turkey is able to evict all rebel forces from the buffer zone within the short timeframe, fingers will point at whatever groups remain in the zone. It is also probable that the groups most averse to eviction from the proposed zone will be those that are most obviously “radically-minded”.

So the Sochi deal, for all the praise it received in the Turkish press, tasks Turkey with clearing a swathe of Syrian territory of rebels that is liable to be re-occupied by the Syrian government at a time of its choosing, and at minimal cost.

Further down the road, if it does come to a fight between Idlib’s rebels and the Syrian Army, the deal has put the rebel groups, some of which Turkey has taken under its wing and nurtured, into a more vulnerable position than previously. This undermines Turkey’s leverage in Syria.

Turkey, naturally hopes it does not come to this. But it is not clear what it can do to change the calculus in the time it has bought. If indications in Turkish media are anything to go by, Ankara would like to divert Damascus’ attention to areas of Syria east of the River Euphrates, currently under the control of Kurdish militias backed by the United States.

Turkey has long viewed these groups as the gravest threat to national security emanating from Syria. It perhaps hopes the Syrian government and its allies can be convinced that the threat those same Kurdish groups pose to Syrian territorial integrity is greater than that posed by Idlib’s rebels, not to mention other areas of Syria the Turkish army occupied in 2016 and 2018.

Despite encouraging noises from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, it is hard to see how events in Sochi can alter the circumstances that resulted in the Syrian government prioritising the recapture of Idlib over those other areas of Syria that it does not control.

The Sochi deal therefore smells more of Turkey’s desperation to avert, if only for now, a fresh influx of refugees and rebel fighters, many of them radicals, and less of any long-term progress towards the realisation of Turkey’s goals in Syria.

In the words of its former foreign minister Yaşar Yakış Turkey has agreed “do the dirty work in Idlib.” The Syrian government’s dirty work that is. In the zero-sum game of the Syrian conflict Turkey’s loss is the Syrian governments gain.   

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.